Circuit training and station training are two different forms of training that each have their own benefits and purposes. However, many people don’t quite know which one to follow or how to approach such forms of training. Here is a brief preview of what each form entails and what you can extract from these types of workout regimens.
At the very basic level, both circuit and station training describe the structure of the workout rather than the types of exercises you would need to perform. Circuit training is essentially a series of exercises performed in succession, or ‘vertically’, with a controlled amount of rest in between. This means that you perform one set of any exercise and move on to the next exercise until you have performed one set of each exercise. Thus, you complete a ‘circuit’, regardless of however long your rest intervals were, how many reps were in a single set, or whatever exercise you did.
The key factor in vertical training is fatigue management. Fatigue works in a relatively specific way; the fatigue that accumulates after the performance of a given exercise tends to negatively affect another set of the same exercise more than it would affect a set of a different exercise. Thus, the rest period between two sets of one particular exercise is not only increased, but also utilized efficiently by performing another exercise that targets different (perhaps non-affected) muscles, movements, and recovery.
Station training, on the other hand, incorporates a ‘horizontal’ approach whereby you would complete all the given sets for each exercise before moving on to the next exercise until you have completed each exercise in the workout.
Pros, Cons, and Misconceptions
Circuit training often takes up much less time and targets body composition more specifically than station training. However, depending on how you design circuits, they can even affect body weight, absolute strength, and relative strength. It is widely thought that circuit training is a good way to incorporate aerobic training into your workout, but this is not exactly the case. While some research shows that there is a small aerobic effect seen after circuit training, it is not a substitute for aerobic endurance training to improve aerobic capacity. Circuit training is also not the same as interval training. Circuits are structured to engage a variety of muscles in different exercises while interval training typically focuses on a single exercise (usually an endurance activity such as running, cycling, swimming, etc.) but varies the intensity at which it is performed for the duration of the session.
Station training is fairly easy to approach given that you know what muscles you want to target, where you want definition, and what order or performance suits your goals best. Circuit training is a little bit more complex because there are a number of different approaches you could take.
A few types of variations to consider are the hypertrophy method (also called the repeated effort method), the maximal weights method, and supersets. The hypertrophy method suggests you keep the load at approximately 70-85% of your maximal ability and keep the repetitions between 6-12 so that your body weight and absolute strength increase but your relative strength decreases.
The maximal weights method (also called the neurological method) suggests that you maintain the load at 85-100% of your maximal ability and keep the repetitions between 1-4 so that you are able to improve the recruitment of existing muscle fibers. This way your body weight stays constant, and both absolute and relative strength increase.
Supersets are when you combine two different exercises such that you pair agonist and antagonist muscle groups, or even pre-exhaustion/post-exhaustion exercises, to target the same muscle with a different stimulus. In simple terms, when an agonist muscle contracts, the opposing muscle, which is the antagonist, is relaxed. In pre-exhaustion supersets, a muscle is first fatigued by a single-joint exercise. This is then followed by a set of a multi-joint exercise that involves the same muscle group and additional muscle groups. Post-exhaustion supersets are the opposite. Supersets are very technical, so make sure you understand why you would need them before attempting them!
The easiest way to get started with circuit training is to take your normal workout and perform it vertically instead of horizontally (station-to-station). Keep a journal of your workouts and previously attempted exercises. You can create your own workout sessions by picking and choosing exercises that target different (or the same) areas. Don’t be afraid to use machines and body-weight exercises. Circuits can include plyometrics, lifting, and even sprints! One thing to keep in mind is that you should keep the total number of sets under control. To maintain intensity and provide an optimal internal environment for muscle adaptation, volume must be limited—they have an inverse relationship.
Remember, station training isn’t better or worse than circuit training—it all depends on your goals. As with any other training regimen, make sure you rest, lift using proper form and technique, and have fun as you train!